Week Nineteen: Listening (and a bit of speaking)

The penultimate week!

I know! Quite where the last seven months have gone I’m not sure.

Is it time to reflect on this whole experience?

Well, we’re not over yet. Sure, we’re coming to the end of the online preparation phase, but there’s still a long way to go before I’m holding that piece of paper.

Actually, it’s not about that paper at all. One of my colleagues on the course messaged me this week asking if I knew about assessment fees and the time window for finishing everything (around 500€ and up to three years respectively). They led with the question what exactly have I paid for? My response? Top quality training and development that has already left me a better teacher, and I’m not even ‘in’ a classroom at the moment. In a couple of weeks I’ll write a longer piece reflecting on my experience thus far, which I’ll link to here. In the meantime, don’t you have some questions about this penultimate module?

Ah yes, sorry! What were you doing this time?

Listening (and a bit of speaking). This is a strand I’ve been developing for some months, ever since the second phonology module. I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere that an old friend refers to techniques for teaching listening as the holy grail of teaching. There’s actually no magic wand to wave, but there are engaging and effective methods for teaching listening that go far beyond the comprehension testing activities we often use in classes.

The key seems to lie in regularly teaching aspects of phonology, especially features of connected speech, and building in regular (read: every class) slots where we help learners decode chunks of language. Richard Cauldwell speaks of three possible variations for pronunciation of chunks. I’ll demo this with this utterance from a listening lesson I worked on for the assignment:

GREENHOUSE VARIETY

The words are pronounced independent of one other with their citation form. Imagine a shop owner trying to talk to a foreign tourist.

GARDEN VARIETY

The words are pronounced with some connected speech, although you’d be careful to enunciate most of the sounds. Imagine your average textbook listening.

JUNGLE VARIETY

The words blend and squeeze together, with lots of blending and elision of sounds. Imagine a listening that’s ‘way too challenging’ for your learners.

AKA authentic listening.

How can this benefit our learners?

The decoding process helps train learners’ ears to what they will (or won’t) hear if they’re speaking to an L1 speaker or a proficient L2 speaker. It’s pretty standard practice to tell students to listen for the key words, and that they don’t need to understand everything. Trouble is, those key words might well change their soundshapes in connected speech. In that previous example, make up is pretty core to understanding the sense of the utterance, but in the jungle it sounds like may cup a carbon footprint. What does that even mean? If you look at Cauldwell’s work, you’ll see the theory that what comes between the initial stress and the main stress in an utterance is squeezed together. That’s function and content words squishing together. If the learner isn’t used to decoding what happens in those squeeze zones, they’ll struggle to glean meaning from what’s being spoken.

Then we’ve got the whole ELT industry in my neck of the woods, turning the gears of the assessment industry. You might have noticed how the level of listening in your coursebook seems lower than the exam materials. Your students come out of a listening test and claim they couldn’t hear anything. Sound familiar? If we start training students with decoding processes based on authentic listening, that exam text will seem like a walk in the park.

This seems fascinating. Aren’t you working on this for your projects?

Yep. My Developmental Research Project is going to focus on ways of teaching listening rather than testing it. I’m also starting to plan out a series of sustainably-themed listening lessons which take advantage of this approach to really teach students to listen better.

What was the assignment this week?

We had to produce a shortened version of a lesson plan which focused on listening (with decoding) and speaking. I plan to reproduce that as an article in the coming weeks, as a precursor to the larger listening project. I’ll link to that here if I remember 😊

Were there any lows?

Just time management. I come back to what I said at the start of this process: how on earth do people working full time manage to fit in a Dip or a Delta as well? It’s been a very busy week with ELT Sustainable. All very positive stuff, but it has meant that I haven’t been able to engage as much as I would have liked to. The assignment was a little rushed and not as well-referenced as it could have been. That said, I don’t plan to complete the assessed teaching until summer ’22, so I cut myself some slack.

What about highlights?

Aside from the above?

Yes…

Sinead Laffan was tutoring this week’s module. She’s friendly, talented, insightful, supportive, eager to challenge and help you develop, and a great teacher. One of OxfordTEFL’s best for sure.

What’s next?

The final module proper rounds everything off with lesson planning. We’ll be drawing on everything we’ve learnt and producing a full ‘Dip-level’ lesson plan for the first time. Although the assessed teaching won’t be happening for a while, I want to make sure that this final assignment both reflects my progress and development over the past seven months, and that it can stand as a good model for when I start working on assessed teaching in a years’ time.